Turning The Tide On Inequality
It is hard to believe that it is any coincidence that by far the most economically unequal large country in the European Union, the UK, was the one that narrowly voted to leave it in 2016. The UK has severe social problems due to severe economic inequality. These include an inability to see unfairness as a problem, and a susceptibility to simplistic immigration-blaming arguments.
The remainder of Europe enjoys greater equality. In every other large European country the ruling elite are far more closely connected to the people because they are economically less separated. Living standards for the median family in France and Germany are higher than in the UK, and the quality of housing is higher.
The UK recently provided the best warning within Europe of what goes wrong when you allow inequality to rise and rise ever higher. Nevertheless, there remain wide variations in economic inequality within mainland Europe that may well also be very instructive.
After the UK, the second most unequal large country in the EU is Spain. For those of us that have studied inequalities for many years there is a somewhat depressing regularity emerging between where a country ranks on the league table of economic inequality, and then its economic, social, and political difficulties.
People may say that the issue of separatism in Spain has little to do with economic inequality; but higher inequality between households within a country is often a symptom of so much more going wrong. As the former BBC economics editor Duncan Weldon recently put it when trying to explain the rise of Trump in the USA: “it’s the inequality stupid”. Weldon was not talking about the inequality between US states, but the inequality between families within those states.
Spain is not as unequal as the UK or USA. It is at no risk of leaving the EU or starting a war with North Korea. But you might be left wondering whether its national government would deal better with devolution, identity and autonomy in Catalonia if Spain taken as a whole were more equitable as a society. The ruling elite in Madrid might make fewer mistakes were Spain as cohesive as France and Germany have become. What matters most is the inequality between individuals and households in a country. The most equitable countries in the world, Norway, Sweden and Japan have few secessionist movements, much less militaristic posturing, and tend not to elect fools to high office.